Who gets to decide what’s best for the Vineyard? How does the Island prioritize demands on its limited resources? Who here has NIMBY cred?

Growing up in Oak Bluffs, I engaged with these questions from an early age. I was in sixth grade when a Connecticut developer put forward his plan to build a golf course on 277 acres of land between County and Barnes Roads. My mother and I joined a group of dedicated Islanders stridently opposed to the proposal.

In a letter to the Gazette’s editor, I called it an “appalling idea” that would destroy the “amazing forest” and “ancient ways” of the Southern Woodlands. After the town greenlighted the proposal, our last hope was the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. We cried for joy under the Olde Stone Building’s fluorescent lights and hung ceiling when the MVC rejected the project, by nine votes to eight, in 2002.

I later saw a touch of irony in my activism. I grew up in a housing development adjacent to the proposed golf course, a 106-acre project that the commission had approved in 1984.

Didn’t homes take the place of forest and ancient ways there, too?

That tension between habitability and conservation — reckoning with how to make space for ourselves on an Island that we all love just the way it is — has characterized the MVC ever since elite and local interests converged to create it 50 years ago this summer. A New York Times editorial from 1971 warned that the Island was “teetering on the edge of an uncontrolled speculative explosion that could destroy in a decade the delicate balance between man and nature that has evolved there.”

A year later, Sen. Ted Kennedy told Congress that “unchecked development” threatened to make the Vineyard “little different from today’s sprawling suburbs.” He proposed a federal trust to “administer the unincorporated areas of the Islands and establish strict land use controls.”

For Vineyarders, the senate bill was a nonstarter. One commentator called the proposal “inhumane, arrogant, and high handed” — a federal moratorium on development while the Island was struggling to accommodate a growing population. Gov. Francis Sargent advocated a “combined federal/state legislative program.”

But local selectmen proposed a land-use planning commission, made up of Islanders and enacted under state law, with broad power to adopt land-use regulations. The resulting state bill received over 95 per cent support in an Island-wide referendum in March 1974: 1,305 in favor, 64 against. Governor Sargent signed the MVC Act that July in a ceremony on the Island.

The Act created perhaps the most influential land-use agency in Massachusetts, if not the country, wielding unparalleled powers in regional planning. And with the power to designate districts and developments for its review, the MVC largely determines its own jurisdiction.

State courts have repeatedly upheld the commission’s broad authority. In 1977, the Supreme Judicial Court confirmed the MVC’s power to block a plan to build 867 half-acre housing units around Sengekontacket Pond that the Oak Bluffs planning board had approved. In its landmark Island Properties judgment, the court characterized the commission as the “polar opposite” of local zoning boards in that it is empowered to protect the “land and water of Martha’s Vineyard” in a way that the towns could not “severally bring to bear.”

The ruling paved the way for the Farm Neck golf course, which the commission approved in part for its asserted conservation benefits — once a favorite precedent of proponents of the Southern Woodlands club.

Island Properties left some Vineyarders thinking they had given the commission too much power, and in 1978, Edgartown and Tisbury withdrew from it. But Edgartown soon sought to rely on the MVC’s unique authority. In 1980, the town’s planning board, powerless to stop a housing project on Herring Creek Pond with its own rules, blocked the development by enforcing regulations that the commission had made before “Edxit.” It wasn’t as successful with other developments. The Gazette wrote in 2002 — after Edgartown and Tisbury had rejoined the MVC — that “the scars are still visible” from the towns’ years out from under the MVC, “where quick-buck developers ran amok.”

Yet MVC review has come with a price. The commission has limited the supply of fuel on the Vineyard, for example, by denying three proposals to build gas stations since 1997. And amid a housing crisis on the Island, the land court — in thwarting an attempted end run around commission review of the Southern Woodlands proposal — ruled that the MVC is exempt from Chapter 40B, which promotes low-income housing projects by allowing them to bypass local boards. All this is tempered by the commission’s decisions not to review certain housing developments (e.g., Edgartown’s Mullen Way), its quick approval of others (e.g., Oak Bluffs’ Southern Tier), and its steadfast commitment to affordability in regional planning, a critical aspect of the MVC’s mandate.

Has the commission always gotten it right? Islanders may disagree. What is clear, though, is that the MVC has become a key forum for sorting out competing interests in the Island’s future. And in seeking to balance preservation and growth, it reflects a uniquely Island web of personal and institutional relationships representing summer residents, newcomers and old-timers alike.

Duncan Pickard, a graduate of Vineyard schools, is an attorney in New York.